The last decade of gaming has seen a major transition in structure. Gone are the days where the market was flooded with mid-tier games. With this decline came a multitude of questions. Would innovation stall? Would we be doomed to play the same annualized AAA releases year in and year out? With the rise of digital distribution and ease of access to development tools, indie studios have filled that void. The level of production and content released is unprecedented. Major players in the industry recognized this trend and have since invested tons of resources into these companies, snatching up developers left and right in an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle.
With that being said, for every Spelunky out there, exist a dozen or more stinkers in between. Given their underdog status, indies tend to receive some leniency, getting a pass when it comes to things like graphic fidelity or lackluster gameplay. For this reason, I approach the genre with caution–maybe unfairly so. When I saw the trailer for Crypt of the NecroDancer, I almost wanted to roll my eyes. Pixel art? Check. Callbacks to older games? Check. Rogue-like? Check. Despite the concerns, it wasn’t fair to judge a book by its cover, so I dove in with tempered expectations.
Many games over the years have mashed genres in an attempt to create a new experience. Sometimes, this mash-up can feel forced. Luckily, this couldn’t be further from the truth with Crypt of the NecroDancer. This is a genre mash-up in the purest sense–50% rogue-like and 50% rhythm game (I know right?!); how could this possibly work? The little-known studio, Brace Yourself Games, has struck genre gold here, excelling not only as a rogue-like dungeon crawler, but also redefining the rhythm genre mash-up.
With every beat, you can make a move, as can the enemies. They move to the music in varying patterns. Some chase you. Some mirror you. Some don’t move at all. Figuring out these core mechanics is the key to succeeding. Like in most rhythm games, there are patterns to learn. The time signature is, for the most part, a simple 4/4 timing. At the bottom of the screen, you’re given a visual cue (shown above), to help you get in time. However, this is an unnecessary feature thanks to the masterful soundtrack from Danny Baranowsky (Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy). The unbelievably catchy music makes finding the beat patterns all the more satisfying. It’s funny to think that such a simple rhythm can lead to some of the more complex patterns I’ve seen in the genre. This is due to the quick-on-your-feet feeling the game constantly has.
While you don’t have to keep moving to the beat, it benefits you greatly, as it will keep your coin multiplier alive which is paramount to your success. This creates an amazing sense of urgency. You have to be quick with your decisions–one wrong move and you could set off a chain reaction leading to your demise. As mentioned above, the game is a rogue-like, so dying will send you all the way to the beginning of the dungeon you were working on. However, there are some excellent tweaks to the genre here. First and foremost are the diamonds. Diamonds are scattered throughout the dungeon, some buried or guarded, others right in plain sight. Diamonds can be used in the lobby to upgrade various aspects of your game. Certain attributes are directly related to your character, such as health or armor. Others will improve your odds on the playing field by adding items or chests. As with all rogue-likes, there is a certain element of luck involved in the random drops. Thankfully, these drops do not serve as a pre-requisite to beating the game. Instead, the game relies on one thing: skill.
On top of all of this, the game is aesthetically easy on the eyes. Some, like myself, are burnt out on the retro, pixel art style that has been a crutch of the indie scene for quite some time now. This typically seems rushed or lazy. It’s hard to compete with the classics, especially since they are often viewed through rose-tinted glasses. While this game evokes feelings of yester-year and has obvious callbacks to classics, it also creates an identity of its own. The animations are often humorous, with characters dancing to the beat as they come to kill you. You can feel the passion for gaming in the designs. Each character’s movements match their personalities—some are aggressive, some passive, just enjoying the music. It’s worth mentioning how hilarious it is when the merchants, who will be hidden throughout the levels, sing along to the music. This is just another layer of quality development that makes this game so special.
Brace Yourself Games has gotten so much right with the genre(s) here it’s hard to sum up in so many words. I’ve found myself constantly hitting the restart button, needing to give it just one more try, evoking those same feelings as the best in the business: Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, Rogue-Legacy, etc. The long and short of it is, this game belongs ranked amongst the best that indies have to offer.